Wednesday, January 17, 2007

UNFILMABLE NOVELS

I love this list of unfilmable novels.

What would you add to it?

I also think this brings up a serious point: more novels should be unfilmable. Because this speaks to what about the form cannot be replicated in other art forms. When I was writing Shriek, one thing I had foremost in my head was to create something that couldn't be filmed (well, except for little excerpts of it...). I've been thinking a lot about the influence of movies and television on novels. Some of it has been good--different ways of editing scenes, or jumping from one scene to another, just to name some simple ones--but in other ways it has been extremely bad. The immutable and yet completely fluid thing about novels that differentiates them from practically every other art form is that the reader creates the images and scenes from the information given to him or her by the writer. Each version of the novel is slightly different in each person's head. There is some of this effect in film, but not that much. Novels, to me, seem much more open to interpretation as a result.

Jeff

13 Comments:

At 7:37 AM, Anonymous Matt Peckham said...

Since Hollywood reliably proves, year after year, that nothing is "unfilmable," (i.e. "sacred") I'd call it my "Please, At All Costs, Don't" list. Quick before-I-must-dash top of my head'ers:

- Anything by Mark Danielewski ('cept maybe The Fifty Year Sword).
- Anything by Gene Wolfe.
- Anything by Pavic, e.g. Dictionary of the Khazars.
- Kris Saknussemm's Zanesville.

Oh geez, I guess I'm with Kelly "short form" Link here--my bookshelves are lined with either collections of shorter works or "conventional enough" novels I could at least conceive of a proper studio doing them justice, e.g. M. John Harrison's Light, Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead, Jonathan Carroll's White Apples, etc. All the really abstruse stuff like Barth and Borges is short form.

 
At 7:49 AM, Anonymous mattpeckham said...

Incidentally, and sorry for the doubled-up comment, what you're thinking about gets a really nice roundabout treatment in Scott McCloud's Understanding Comments. Among other things, McCloud's thinking about the way the psychological process occurs spatially and temporally. Thus for instance in film you have sequential imagery, but rendered at a monolithic 24 frames per second (NTSC) and in singular space disallowing the brain to make all but the most instinctive or unconscious microsecond processing "leaps" between images. In comics, by contrast, you have the "gutter," which allows for much more consciously reader-oriented transitions, e.g. "conjuring the action." Consider McCloud's example of the person holding the axe raised in one panel, the very next simply containing a dialogue balloon with an exclamation something like "EEYYAAA!" As McCloud puts it, "All of you participated in the murder. All of you held the axe and chose your spot."

i like that. I like that a lot. It implies quite a bit about the way text can work in terms of baseline abstraction on the "scribble" scale.

 
At 7:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, but I'd argue comics are still closer to film than to fiction.

Actually, that might not be true in terms of narrative structure...

JeffV

 
At 10:23 AM, Anonymous Divers Hands said...

On the comic to film relationship...

I don't really think the comic format really follows film more closely than the traditional literary form, I think that there are just some writers/artists who present their work in that style. Grant Morrison's early work springs to mind here immediatly as virtually unfilmable. Works like "Arkham Asylum", "Kid Eternity" and "Doom Patrol" could never be adapted with the same feel, the same narrative flow allowed by film. The same can be said of Gaiman's "Sandman" (which they'll try anyway), Ashley Wood's "Popbot" and pretty much any of Sam Keith's creator owned work (yes, I do remember the MTV adaptation of "The Maxx". Wouldn't work. While the first five issues of the series followed traditional comic narrative structures, as the series progressed the ability to distinguish between here and the Outback, the number of people who get caught up in the rapidly decaying reality, the breakdown of identity and role amongst the characters only works in a static visual environment where you can take the time to see what Keith is doing with their slow melding forms.)

I do however support Mr. VanderMeer in his assertion that the realm of traditional literature needs more people thinking long and hard about the form and style of their craft. While I was still a student at OSU (last year) over half the students in the English Dept. with me were working on screen plays. Not theatrical, not novels, not even prose: Screen Plays. As I was informed numerous times by my fellow students, "That's where the money is." Of those few brave souls still believing in the novel prose style, well over half of them were writing something with the hopes of it being adapted to film or screen. You could tell to. Try reading their manuscripts and you would find works all following traditional narrative structures, visually striking/ easily comprehensible scene cuts, etc. etc. Some of the more adventurous were thinking about directors like Tarantino when they wrote, but I would say 90% of the students declared for English were constantly considering how to work within the film industry.

This is why I tell people I'm a Literature Major.

In my own work, I constantly ask myself if it is possible to film the scene I'm writing. Don't get me wrong, I've stolen a ton of narrative tricks and images from the world of film, but if I look at what I'm doing and realize that the cost in photography, special effects, or sheer human effort would be way to high to include in film (or in one rare case, actually impossible - and trust me, its rare) than I feel that I am succeeding as a novelist. The other edge to this sword is that we live in a world dominated by the more visual medium (Danielewski's popularity stems from this to some small degree. His work adds a visual language to the page that engages the viewer with its novelty and releaves the boredom and intimidation held by close ranked text. There is a real lesson for us in that.) and to ignore that entirely is to accept that we are alienating the vast majority of our audience.

Of course, you could just stop caring about an audience. (Which is the same as saying "Shit, my work is unpublishable!" - i.e. my own writing.)

As for unfilmable? Cysco's "The Tyrant". The images from that work exist like slow moving oil painting in my head. The richness of his prose terrifies most of the people I show it to, but leaves me feeling like I have just witnessed a masterpiece of fine art in heavy, amber filtered light slowly scrolling past. The beauty of his work lies in the strangly exact depiction of the impossible, and I do not think film is at all capable of conveying that sense of richness to reality.

Steve Aylett's Beerlight novels. The beauty of Aylett's work lies in his satirical word games. While a book like "Atom" is nothing more than a rewrite of the film version of "The Maltese Falcon" the luncay and daring of the prose, the choice of words, the bizarre metaphors is what makes it so bloody brilliant, so ridiculously funny. Film, especially in this country, simply has not developed enough of a visual language to allow for the subtle play on ideas that underscore the obvious ridiculousness of Aylett's less obtuse jokes.

 
At 11:00 AM, Anonymous Matt Peckham said...

Sure, and you're not wrong Jeff. British comics writer Mike Carey (Lucifer, Crossing Midnight) talks about the ways in which various writers pursue deliberately "filmic" approaches to their panel work in terms of how they encourage the artist to render a scene or pace a series of panels (in whatever form, e.g. traditional boxes, asymmetrical undulating waves, etc.).

On the other hand, I think DH is right to point to instances in which that's not the case, or in which comics as "iconography in sequence" seem much nearer prose than celluloid. I'd toss nearly anything from Chris Ware into that pile, or top of my head, Lorenzo Mattotti's Chimera. Even written language itself has certain iconographic properties in terms of their shapes and "physicality" on the page which arguably evokes or stimulate mental imagery not unlike the "gutter" aspect of sequential art during the reading act.

In any case, a straight text work without interior imagery or one-off sketches that "mod" the reception of certain passages, is inarguably its own animal. The whole closer/further argument is probably irrelevant at the end of the day, sort of like the endless, nonsensical "genre bucket" debate. More important, I think, is what you're getting at when you read/write crossways/interstitially.

You might find it interesting to go back to the YBF&H I believe 12th (it might be 13th--I'm at a coffee house typing this away from my books) and scan either Datlow or Windling's assessment of that year's books. Whichever of the two it was, the criticisms have parallels to the ones you raised in a recent post about narrative structure. I'm pretty sure it was Windling who was down on that year's submissions as suffering largely from a tendency to not really "go" anywhere, i.e. circling, circling back, circling back again, then suddenly boom, denouement.

 
At 11:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All very interesting discussion. I feel a little bit like Tom Sawyer saying, "Hey--wanna help me paint a fence?" Since I'm going to deal with some of these topics in my next Bookslut column.

I guess the thing that has bothered me recently is the comparison of graphic novels to novels and even the comparison of TV shows to novels. In each case, it seems that the implied statement between each comparison is "If we truly want to convey legitimacy upon graphic novels/TV, then we must compare both to novels." While this is flattering to novels, it's actually not particularly flattering to either graphic novels or TV.

My base argument would be: as soon as you add the graphic element, and that graphic element is an indispensible part of the narrative, rather than just window-dressing, then you're entering graphic novel territory and the reader's experience is very different from reading a novel. Not inferior, just different. Now I'm beginning to see that in terms of narrative strategies, you can of course make useful comparisons between certain kinds of novels and certain kinds of graphic novels, for example.

But this doesn't get away from the fact that you should be able to just say a graphic novel is a great graphic novel and attain legitimacy by saying that and that alone.

I'm also thinking of the National Book Awards and the fact a graphic novel was a finalist. Great for that particular graphic novel, but you know the National Book Awards judges did not do a systematic review of graphic novels in making that decision. Most probably, one or two judges liked that graphic novel and plopped it on the list. Again, great for that particular graphic novel. Not particularly great in terms of taxonomy or in terms of a systematic review of the field.

I think it'd actually be great if there were a graphic novel category in the National Book Awards, which would then require the same systematic and fair review that the novel and other categories purportedly go through. Because the fact of the matter is that while you may sometimes have a graphic novel nominated in a novel category, you will never see a novel nominated in a graphic novel category.

I'm not one of those outraged that a graphic novel was up for a National Book Award for best novel. But think, for an instant, of the opposite who-put-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter scenario: What if a novel were a finalist for an Eisner Award? Would that make any sense at all? Not really. And it'll never happen.

So, to my mind, if we're going to have separate categories for different art forms to begin with, even if very general, we need to just begin adding categories for graphic novel--to the World Fantasy Award, to the National Book Award, etc. *That* would be true equality, rather than some kind of ad hoc, off-hand rare sighting of a graphic novel on some prestigious award finalist list.

I hope this makes sense. It's a bit off-the-cuff.

JeffV

 
At 12:23 PM, Anonymous matt peckham said...

Yep, agreed. I think the comparisons are most valid when they're basically "illumination through juxtaposition," as opposed to unhelpful and purely political "accreditation by identification."

I think you need to separate the legitimate political angle out though, namely the concern some would express that graphic novels aren't given their aesthetic due at the cross-cultural level in, say, the same way The Known World or Gilead are. I think at least some people making the comparison between GNs and so-called literary works are doing so less on a mechanical level than the culture-elite one. Of course some (I think most rightly of all) simply reject the hierarchy altogether. Not because they're proponents of anything goes aesthetics, but simply because, well, who wants to pick one book to "win" the National Book Award, Pulitzer, Quill, WFA, Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker, Locus, etc. anyway?

Bah, I'm digressing. We're fundamentally on the same page. Gauge singularly, explore interstitially.

 
At 12:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matt:

It really is interesting, but I do get a sense of "the dispossessed" or the "ghetto" from a lot of comics people--for probably the same reasons as within groups of SF/F writers and readers. Except, of course, that comics have a pop culture allure that a lot of genre doesn't have, and which I think buffers comics creative types a little bit from these kinds of feelings. I could be wrong. Just dipping my toe in the water so far. Much to learn.

Oh--and I like what you said in that last post.

JeffV

 
At 1:10 PM, Anonymous Da,mien G Walter said...

Anything by M John Harrison

I would have said anything by Mr Palahniuk as well, but they somehow managed to get Fight Club done. I challenge them to do Survivor though. I want to see Hollywood depict a porn landfill site and survive the christian backlash.

 
At 1:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfilmable science fiction:

1. The FOUNDATION books are unfilmable -- nobody except the most rabid Asimov fan would want to sit through countless hours of people just talking.

2. For similar reasons, ATLAS SHRUGGED is unfilmable. (That movie is going to crash and burn so hard, it's gonna be great! I'll bring popcorn, and we can roast marshmallows over the flaming wreckage!)

(3. My short story "See" (podcast at http://www.variantfrequencies.com) is unfilmable. For optical reasons. ;-P)

 
At 4:07 PM, Anonymous Caleb Wilson said...

A recent favorite of mine that seems unfilmable is The Impossibly by Laird Hunt. So much of the novel depends on the narrator's vague tone, to tie it down to images would I think ruin the entire effect.

 
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